Anyone who has been stranded on the side of the road with a broken radiator knows the importance of a vehicle’s cooling system. What many people don’t know, however, is that a person’s skin acts as the body’s cooling system.

And if the body’s radiator malfunctions, the consequences can be much more serious than a car’s breakdown. A person could suffer heat exhaustion, heat stroke or even death.

 “Heat stroke is a medical emergency,” said Jackie Livesay, MD, medical director of the emergency department at Wellmont Hawkins County Memorial Hospital. “It generally occurs after prolonged exposure to the sun or a very hot environment, but it can occur anywhere, including homes that are inadequately cooled.” 

When a person has a heat stroke, his or her body temperature rises so quickly that the skin is unable to sweat and cool it down fast enough. The victim’s body temperature could rise as high as 107 degrees, and death or permanent disability can result if proper treatment isn’t received.

Some warning signs of heat stroke, besides an extremely high body temperature, include skin that is red, hot and dry, a throbbing headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, confusion and, in some cases, unconsciousness. 

Although heat exhaustion is less serious, it can lead to heat stroke if it isn’t addressed.  Heat exhaustion can develop after several days of exposure to high temperatures without enough fluid intake. 

“With heat exhaustion, patients are generally very weak, but do not have the high temperature or mental status changes associated with heat stroke,” Dr. Livesay said. 

In addition to general weakness, people with heat exhaustion often sweat very heavily, look pale and feel tired, dizzy and nauseous. Headaches and fainting are also common. 

Once the heat stroke or exhaustion victim is out of the sun, medical help should be sought immediately and vigorous measures should be taken to lower his or her body temperature, Dr. Livesay said. Such measures include pouring cool water over the victim’s head and shoulders.

“Don’t immerse victims in ice water,” Dr. Livesay added. “It could make their blood pressure go down too quickly and cause shock.” 

He also advises against rubbing alcohol on victims. “I think that may be an old wives’ tale,” he said. “I remember when I was a kid and had a fever, family members would want to rub alcohol on me and the theory was that as the alcohol evaporates, the body temperature goes down. That just doesn’t work for victims of heat stroke.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” he said. “Preventing heat stroke or heat exhaustion is a lot easier than treating it.” 

The No.1 protective factor against heat-related illnesses and death is air conditioning.  Drinking plenty of non-alcoholic, caffeine-free fluids, wearing appropriate clothing and sunscreen and pacing oneself in the heat can also provide defense against heat-related illnesses. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an average of more than 400 Americans die each year from extreme heat. 

 “We see two to three cases of heat stroke in the emergency room in Wellmont Hawkins County Memorial every year,” Dr. Livesay said. “So it may not be that common in this area, but we certainly have the potential.” 


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